She charges space, she rakes and ruffles her cropped and bleached hair, her dark eyes narrow as her thought uncoils with the lasso of smoke from her cigarette, and she moves, lean and feline-slinky in her riot of colours, her pendant earrings swinging, her deep voice booming, laughter welling from the depths. We can’t take our eyes off her, this brilliant magnetic being, as she teaches and entertains – and with Lesley one always implies the other. We’re at Murdoch University, back in 1987-8, then a relatively radical institution, fostering cross-fertilisations amongst the disciplines, and Lesley, a film theorist and critic of growing renown, is also on fire creatively.
After the weekly tennis doubles game that we call The Young Martina in homage to Navratilova, we’ve showered and slipped into our work clothes, making for the open-plan teaching room. The Reading & Writing Praxis Reader, compiled by Lesley and wonderful tennis partner and colleague Anna Gibbs, manifests their wide erudition and their refusal to observe any binary split between theoretical and creative practice. Laurence Sterne jostles with Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes; Gertrude Stein and Stevie Smith with Luce Irigaray. With about 40 students around tables scattered inside and on the terrace, this team teaching is going surprisingly well; it’s hardly a lecture; rather, it’s a polyphonic take on the challenges and provocations of the readings, turning some of their features into triggers for writing exercises. Then we wander amongst the tables, taking peeks at the work-in-progress, encouraging, making suggestions, inviting students to present to the class. If one of us is a little frayed, under the weather, or under-slept, the other two will fire off in her place, but once primed, it seems we can always spark off each other.
We also have a monthly writing group, where we present our work-in-progress. Along with Lesley and Anna, the group includes Marcel George, Wendy Jenkins, Deborah Robertson, and Terri-ann White. We cover a range of genres, sometimes within the one piece, from metafiction, jazz improvisation, prose poetry, lyric poetry, short story, autofiction and what will soon be dubbed by practitioner Stephen Muecke (1997; 2020) as fictocriticism. We read out our work, workshop it, suggesting improvements, usually by paring down, culling the odd adverb and adjective and academic abstraction; we drink wine, eat nibbles, sometimes dance, and, on one occasion, produce an ‘exquisite corpse’ piece which we collectively perform to a consternated audience.
Unable to locate my copy of Lesley’s The Smoking Book (1999), and ruing a chronic compulsion to press the loan of my favourite books to students, who often don’t return them, I’ve sought out in my garage an archive box full of photocopied pieces that we shared in those feverish days of ‘87-88. Perhaps because some of us refused to silo genres in our teaching, and because so many of the key theorists of writing and poetics engaged in creative takes on the critical and / or vice versa – from Jean Genet’s ‘What Remains of a Rembrandt’, Hélène Cixous’ ‘Laugh of the Medusa’; Luce Irigaray’s ‘And One Doesn’t Stir Without the Other’ to Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments and Camera Lucida, or Julia Kristeva’s ‘Stabat Mater’ – it hardly seemed a shocking departure to mix the reflexive or the meta-poetic with fiction or memoir.
Here, perhaps the most intensely represented writer in terms of pieces workshopped was Lesley – in fact, the pieces she shared with us all were later to form the kernel of The Smoking Book, exploring the tropes of smoking: smoking as intense pleasure, mimicry and rebellion, and certainly as an amazingly ductile signifier. On first hearing and reading these early stories, prose poems and vignettes, we marvelled at their seductiveness, as well as the ambitious risk-taking of much of the work. For instance, the story ‘To Remember (to find yourself in Fragments)’1
entwines three narrative strands in radical montage: the excruciating, knifing pain of a miscarriage under the forensic gaze of a doctor; dynamically invoked clips of Gregory Peck, the amnesiac interrogated and pursued in Mirage (Dimytryk, Edward, 1966); and, through a child’s eyes, the impending demise of the colonialists in Rhodesia, soon to become Zimbabwe. As a brilliant theorist of the scopic regime of cinema, Lesley conveys in all sequences a heightened sense of the subject impaled by the probing, potentially murderous or incriminating gaze of the other, and at times, identification with the pursued sees the unnamed focaliser become Gregory Peck, as she becomes the cowering white child back in Rhodesia, having overheard an African farmworker say to her father: “But remember, come the night of the long knives, we’ll be on different sides of the fence.”2 Lesley’s writing always enfolds the historic and political within the intensely personal. And, true to the traumatic experience, the dissociating mind is shaken out of the body into spaces where the pronoun proves a fragile shifter indeed: from paragraph to paragraph, she is fleetingly first, second or third person. The narrator, so unmoored, is thus unable to testify to her experience. The story’s anti-epiphany strikes a deep truth in the final close-up:
She sees the anxiety around his eyes and knows that he knows that there is no answer. She cannot tell him what it is to be in a woman’s body, for she does not know, in spite of everything she does not know.[…] A barbed wire fence, strewn, entangled over an immense space. Is this what it is to remember, she thinks: to dismember, to find yourself in fragments.3
Amongst these papers, I was also moved to find again this avowal:
There’s a genre of which I partake – the writing-through-addiction genre. Writing as enabled by addiction; and its obverse: writing through it as in a thriller, driving through a roadblock, coming out the other side. This genre is destined to be diaristic, tediously personal, acutely experiential.
While ‘tediously personal’ is surely meant ironically, if one takes Lesley’s primary and driving addiction as her chronic epistemophilia, this extract from the 1988 version of ‘Cheap Thrills’ can be read as an encapsulation of her life’s project: to ask, relentlessly, before every phenomenon: what does it mean, and how can I write it, make it, perform it? Intense and sustained epistemophilia is resonantly manifest in all Lesley’s writing, whether its ostensible subject be film, cultural life, illness, gardening, cooking or environmental concern. It’s there on every page of Diary of a Detour (2020), this craving to understand, insuring a cross-fertilisation and cross-hatching of genres, and setting them into fertile friction. In this magnificent last work, practically every one of the eighty-three chapters enacts a detour within the eponymous detour. The book’s title is in itself both a celebration of the kind of playful digression practised by such writing forebears as Laurence Sterne, and is a metafictional reflection on the swerve away from the mortal telos that governs every life and frames every story, and one plangently pronounced by a diagnosis, such as the shattering one served to Lesley in 2013, regarding the onset of her CCL.
The poetics of digression always implies a multiplication of stories within stories, and here, a tessellation of genres: the detour from the primary motif or situation invariably involving a gathering of material – scientific, cultural, political, experiential – and then the return to the motivating trope, announced in the opening paragraph. The lasso I invoked at the beginning of this piece is itself a steal from Lesley’s story, ultimately published as ‘Suspended forever’5, and whose cinematic imaging includes a celebration of the lasso of smoke depicted on the fetishized Star cigarette soft pack. It occurs to me now that, beyond the early smoking addiction, the lasso might be seen as the sublimated master-trope for all her work; the rope thrown out in the epistemophilic quest, the circling of illuminating knowledge, then the captivation, and finally, the looping back to the first catalysing figure, fact, or question. But always evident in the early drafts were the artist and performer, both of which propensities made her a superb teacher, who knew how to pace things, to stretch and slow-mo the moment, to suggest convergences through manifold implication, or to seed the desert of the otherwise blank page with a simple phrase or two. She also knew how to embed her fictionalising with stories of intellectual infatuation, and most of all, to seduce and hold captivated her reader through the lasso-figures of virtuosic stylishness. As is invariously the case with writers who are gifted performers, Lesley knew not only to strike in writing the inflections of her own unforgettable voice and the nerve of her intellectual restlessness – she managed throughout her fictocritical practice to activate the whole sensorium.
Always the exhilarating artist of the dynamic image, she addresses the full gamut of sensations – beyond the merely visual – the kinetic, tactile, olfactory, and auditory senses are all keening when reading her, whether the text at hand be a homage to classic Hollywood cinema or a dramatic rendering of a childhood memory. The sensual pungency is often extraordinary, as here, in this passage from ‘Suspended Forever’:
Now it’s the dead part of the day, dust hangs in the air, infiltrates the lungs, enervates. Inside the store the world comes alive: there’s a crackle of subterranean gossip, a clatter of beans ricocheting against tin, volcanic murmur of the sewing machine, treadling erratically. Walking in and out of the glare, it’s as though the cavernous gloom, the density of the beaten earthenware floor, absorbs the jagged edges of daylight living. And as you stand in the cool dimness, you close your eyes and smell: cotton, the pungency of cheap starched cotton, bales of primary colours heaped up behind the tailor, ripped into, shreds littering the ground around his machine. In the gloom, tendrils of blue tobacco smoke unfurl, float through the air, entwining somnolent words. Old mealy sacks are recycled, used for wrapping, still smelling of mealy meal, a textured smell woven into the scene. Pink carbolic soap, sharply acidic, pierces the nostrils.6
That’s why one feels intensely alive reading her, and why for her readers, despite the devastating news of her death, Lesley Stern will remain intensely alive for us.
- Barthes, Roland, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (New York: Hill & Wang, 2010 ), trans. Richard Howard, foreword Wayne Koestenbaum.
- Camera Lucida (New York: Hill & Wang, 1981 ), trans. Richard Howard.
- Cixous, Hélène, “Laugh of the Medusa” in New French Feminisms: An Anthology (New York: Shocken, 1981 ), eds. Elaine Marks and Hélène de Courtivron.
- Genet, Jean, “What Remains of a Rembrandt” in Fragments of the Artwork (Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series, 1988 ), trans. Charlotte Mandell.
- Irigaray, Luce, “And One Doesn’t Stir Without the Other” in This Sex Which Is Not One (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981 ), trans. Hélène Vivienne Wenzel.
- Kristeva, Julia, “Stabat Mater” in The Kristeva Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986 ), ed. Toril Moi.
- Muecke, Stephen, The Mother’s Day protest & Other Fictocritical Essays: Place, Memory, Affect (Washington DC: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).
- No Road: Bitumen All the Way (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1997).
- Stern, Lesley, The Smoking Book (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999).
- Diary of a Detour (Durham, NC, Writing Matters Series, Duke University Press, 2020).